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Are GOP Hopes for Gains in California Realistic?

By Alan Abramowitz

Remember back when California was one of the keys to the Republican "lock" on the White House? Back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, California was actually somewhat more Republican than the nation as a whole, partly because the Republican candidates in five of those presidential elections hailed from the Golden State. Since 1992, however, California, with the nation's largest bloc of electoral votes, has been been considerably more Democratic than the nation. In 2004, John Kerry carried the state by just under 10 percentage points--not quite a landslide, but a pretty decisive margin.

But could the Democrats' recent domination of California be coming to an end? Some Republicans, including Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman apparently think so. According to an Associated Press story posted on the CNN website today, these Republicans believe that GOP prospects in California are improving thanks to a combination of demographic changes and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's "star power."

Schwarzenegger's "star power" seems to be fading rapidly--his approval rating has fallen below 50 percent in recent state polls. And these same polls show that President Bush is even less popular in the Golden State than he is in the rest of the country. But according to the AP story, "analysts have noted several population shifts that suggest potential for Republicans to expand their reach" in California. And what are those population shifts? According to the story, "while population growth is slowing in left-leaning coastal areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco, it is accelerating in more conservative areas such as the Central Valley and the Inland Empire area east of Los Angeles."

The problem with this analysis is that these population shifts are nothing new in California. The Central Valley and the Inland Empire have been growing more rapidly than the Bay Area and Los Angeles County for decades. But this hasn't turned California's color from blue to red because these areas still make up a fairly small percentage of the state's population and much of the is a result of a growing Hispanic population. Moreover, an analysis of 2004 exit poll data for California shows that younger Californians are less white, more Hispanic, more liberal, and more likely to vote Democratic than their elders.

According to the 2004 exit poll data, only 50 percent of California voters under the age of 30 were white while 34 percent were Hispanic. In contrast, 86 percent of California voters over the age of 60 were white and only 7 percent were Hispanic. 32 percent of California voters under the age of 30 described themselves as liberal while 23 percent described themselves as conservative. In contrast, only 23 percent of Californians over the age of 60 described themselves as liberal while 32 percent described themselves as conservative. It is not surprising therefore that 60 percent of Californians under the age of 30 voted for John Kerry. This was about six points higher than Kerry's support among voters over 30.

These generational differences suggest that California's electorate is almost certain to become less white, more Hispanic, more liberal, and more Democratic in the future. It's will take a lot more than Arnold Schwarzenneger's "star power" to reverse these trends. Not even the Terminator himself would be likely to move California's 55 electoral votes out of the Democratic column in 2008.